Sunday, April 24, 2011


Poetry Tag continues with a book review of a new book of poetry connected to yesterday's book review.

Today’s tagline: A novel in verse about a painful truth

Featured Book: Lai, Thanhha. 2011. Inside Out and Back Again. HarperCollins.

What a powerful debut work from new voice Thanhha Lai. It’s a loosely autobiographical work about her own experience as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1970s. The 10-year-old heroine of this taut novel in verse, Hà, narrates the story which is broken into 4 sections:

Part I Saigon
Part II At Sea
Part III Alabama
Part IV From Now On

Each section offers a well-developed whole with a strong sense of place unique to each—life in Vietnam, surviving on a refugee boat, transplanting in an Alabama town. (The fourth and final section is still set in Alabama, but represents a clear shift in the emotional resolution.) The transition between each place occurs quickly (as it would in reality) and offers the reader a strong sense of the displacement and constant re-orientation that the characters experience. This also provides a framework for a fast-moving plot that keeps the reader turning the page and wondering how the family will cope with each new challenge.

Amidst all this upheaval, Lai also manages to carve out distinct characterizations of Hà and each member of her family, including her resilient mother and each of her three brothers. Even characters in the “new” environment (sponsor, teacher, neighbor) emerge as multi-dimensional individuals. Our protagonist is often the least sympathetic character—rebellious, insecure, somewhat selfish—but her honest observations manage to be touching, poignant, and often hilarious while balancing the tightrope of authentic child voice and reliable story narrator. Consider the opening poem that pushes the story into motion.

1975: Year of the Cat

Today is Tết,
the first day
of the lunar calendar.

Every Tết
we eat sugary lotus seeds
and glutinous rice cakes.
We wear all new clothes,
even underneath.

Mother warns
how we act today
foretells the whole year.

Everyone must smile
no matter how we feel.

No one can sweep,
for why sweep away hope?

No one can splash water,

for why splash away joy?

we all gain one year in age,
no matter the date we were born.
Tết, our New Year’s,
doubles as everyone’s birthday.

Now I am ten, learning
to embroider circular stitiches,
to calculate fractions into percentages,
to nurse my papaya tree to bear many fruits.

But last night I pouted
when Mother insisted
one of my brothers
must rise first
this morning
to bless our house
because only male feet
can bring luck.

An old, angry knot
expanded in my throat.

I decided
to wake before dawn
and tap my big toe
to the tile floor

Not even Mother,
sleeping beside me, knew.

February 11

(pp. 1-3)

I love how culturally specific this verse novel is with plenty of details about the rituals, beliefs, foods, names, and attitudes within Vietnamese culture, while offering many universals that cross cultures and draw the reader in (troublesome brothers, being teased, learning new things). Lai does not shy away from including harsh difficulties and sadness, as well as offering hope that grows out of the characters’ strengths and love.

I also really appreciate the Spartan, spare nature of Lai’s poetry. What is not said is as critical as what is. And her use of titles to begin her entries and “date stamps” to end them is so well conceived and effective.

Young readers who may be unfamiliar with this period will simply see this as a believable story about moving, adjusting, and growing up. Older readers (and grown up readers like me who remember those times vividly) will also be fascinated by the tectonic shift the characters experience in culture, religion, expectations, roles, and relationships. Set in 1975, the book rings true today as new groups of refugees cope with war, camps, relocation, language learning, and cultural adjustment across the globe.

I felt a very personal connection reminded of my own parents leaving Germany after WW2, choosing between Australia and the U.S. for their new home, waiting for sponsorship, traveling by boat, arriving broke, learning the language, and making their way slowly, but surely. In her “Author’s Note” concluding the verse novel, Lai concludes, “I also hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story” (p. 262). In her dedication she acknowledges “To the millions of refugees in the world, may you each find a home”—what an invitation for kids to look for ways to welcome others in their immediate environment who may be eager for a friendly gesture and kind word.

Tomorrow’s tagline: A novel in verse about coping with cultural differences

We’re heading down the homestretch of National Poetry Month—still time to get your copy of the e-book, PoetryTagTime, an e-book with 30 poems, all connected, by 30 poets, downloadable at Amazon for your Kindle or Kindle app for your computer, iPad or phone for only 99 cents. Grab it now.]

Image credit: PoetryTagTime; HarperCollins

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell and students © 2011. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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